The Great Holmes Debate - My initial thoughts
Warner Bros. Sherlock Vs BBC Sherlock
The problem is that there are really two debates. The first is to determine which of the two is more faithful to the source material. The second is to determine which has done the most to raise the profile of Holmes and gain new fans.
For the rest of this document the BBC series will be referred to as (BBCS) and the Warner Bros film will be referred to as (WBS).
It’s very easy for those of us reading the stories today to forget that Holmes was not a historical detective to the people that read his adventures when they were first published. However as time went on Holmes did become increasingly a prisoner of the nineteenth century.
When Conan Doyle penned his first adventure A Study in Scarlet in 1886 (published in 1887) Holmes was operating in the same Victorian period as those who read the story. When Conan Doyle wrote his last Holmes adventure Shoscombe Old Place (published in 1927) Holmes was still the Victorian (perhaps just about Edwardian) detective even though the reigning monarch of the day was King George V (Victoria’s grandson). In other words Holmes had made the transition from contemporary to semi-historical and was now operating in a world that was some two decades in the past. Although this was no doubt largely influenced by the character’s age (known to be sixty in 1914) it does suggest that Conan Doyle saw the Victorian era as Holmes’s natural place. This is born out by his opinion of the Eilee Norwood silent Holmes films which he thought were fine aside from the fact that they were set in the 1920s. Looked at in this way the argument for moving Holmes to the present day is a little weakened. See here for further details.
Watson in both BBCS and WBS is faithfully depicted. Conan Doyle gave us an intelligent and brave former army doctor and this is what we are given by both adaptations. It is rather pleasing to see Watson so well depicted after so many poor screen outings (such as Nigel Bruce). Perhaps WBS felt that if Watson could not be the comic relief then Holmes had to step in instead.
Inspector Lestrade is also well served by both adaptations. In the books he is very much depicted as a man lacking in reasoning ability but gifted with energy. In both WBS and BBCS this is the kind of man we are presented with.
So, as said above, from a fidelity standpoint, I feel that BBCS scores over WBS in almost every area except that of chronological setting where it loses and the depictions of Watson and Lestrade where they tie.
Debate Two – New fans and profile
Both WBS and BBCS have raised the profile of Holmes and have unquestionably increased his fan base. However these are screen fans rather than book fans. It is debatable how many of these new fans will go on to embrace the original Holmes.
Of course a proportion almost certainly will. I personally discovered Holmes and became a fan through the films of Basil Rathbone so the transition from a less than faithful screen Holmes to the original literary Holmes is clearly possible. Large numbers, however, are destined to remain fans only of the adaptations themselves.
Many fans of WBS who pick up the books are almost certainly going to be disappointed at the lack of love interest, the relative lack of fights and the almost total absence of explosions that the film leads you to believe form most of Holmes’s day-to-day existence.
Both adaptations can, in my opinion, be regarded as successes even if they only bring a handful of new people to the books who then learn to love the written Holmes as much as the screen Holmes.
So the adaptation, in my opinion, which does the most for Holmes's profile is BBCS but the race is a close one and not the forgone conclusion that many might have expected.